What Packaging Dog Food Can Teach You About Science Writing and Other Tales

Cartoon drawing of two workers drinking coffee

Believe it or not, the most unglamorous jobs teach us all a thing or two about life. I asked Promega staff members to discuss the most impactful lessons they learned at their first jobs. Check it out.

Continue reading “What Packaging Dog Food Can Teach You About Science Writing and Other Tales”

Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement: #WorldMetrologyDay

Scientific investigation is an iterative process, for which reproducibility is key. Reproducibility, in turn, requires accuracy and precision—particularly in measurement. The unsung superheroes of accuracy and precision in the research lab are the members of your local Metrology Department. According to Promega Senior Metrologist, Keela Sniadach, it’s good when the metrology department remains unsung and behind the scenes because that means everything is working properly.

Holy Pipettes, Scientists! We have a metrology department?! Wait…what’s metrology again?

Callibration technician checks out a multipipettorMetrology (the scientific study of measurement) got its start in France, when it was proposed that an international length standard be based on a natural source. It was from this start that the International System of Units (SI), the modern metric system of measurement, was born.

Metrology even has its own day: May 20, which is the anniversary of day the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) was created by the Meter Convention in Paris in 1875. The job of BIPM is to ensure worldwide standards of measurement.

For life scientists, metrology centers around making sure the equipment used everyday—from pipettes to heating blocks to centrifuges—is calibrated and measuring correctly. Continue reading “Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement: #WorldMetrologyDay”

Useful or Useless: Weird Things Packed in Our Evolutionary Suitcase

Genetics are a curious thing. Don’t get me wrong, on paper and in theory, the study and science behind our inheritance completely checks out. However, in practice, it can still be a bit disconcerting to look in the mirror one day and recognize your father’s nose and eyebrows in your own face, or to realize you gesticulate in the same animated fashion as your mother, and sometimes hear her laugh come bubbling out of your own mouth.

More curious still are the structures and behaviors that have been carried throughout evolution to the modern era of humanity, though we are considerably distinguishable from our more primitive ancestors.

And perhaps most curious of all, are the structures we continue to pack along with us, as that have little to no known useful function in the contemporary human body. These features are better known as vestigial structures, and are classically defined as features and behaviors that no longer serve the function and purpose they were designed to perform (in comparison to other creatures with the same parts).

Currently, as I recover from the aftermath of a painful encounter with one of my own vestigial organs, I find myself considering if my late appendix ever did anything much for me, or if it’s only purpose was to lie in wait as a metaphorical ticking time-bomb. Prior to my surprise appendectomy, I hadn’t spared much thought for my appendix, and decided I wanted to honor it’s memory by learning more about it, in addition to several of our other human evolutionary leftovers. Man, I wish I would’ve asked the doctors to hang on to that bad boy for me!

The Evolutionary Junk in Our Trunk

Appendix

The appendix is perhaps the most widely known vestigial organ in the human body of today. If you’ve never seen one, the appendix is a small, pouch-like tube of tissue that juts off the large intestine where the small and large intestines connect. By comparison, in herbivorous vertebrates the appendix is much larger, and functions primarily to aid in the breakdown of cellulose in consumed plants. Today, the appendix is considered a small leftover from one of our plant-eating ancestors. As our diets have changed over time, the role our appendix plays in digestion has declined, leaving plenty of room for speculation regarding what purpose it serves now. Continue reading “Useful or Useless: Weird Things Packed in Our Evolutionary Suitcase”

There’s Something About Trees: Arbor Day 2019

two girls climbing a tree
Climbing The Old Willow Tree is best with a friend

My daughter has a favorite tree, The Old Willow Tree, at Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Madison. I don’t know exactly how much time she has spent in that tree, but I suspect it is significant.

Trees have served as the source of inspiration for scientists’ careers, writers’ metaphors, and musicians’ nostaglia.

One of our science writers at Promega tells this story about an early “botanical” experiment he and his grandmother performed:

“When I was four, my grandma helped me plant a ‘helicopter’ in a butter dish. It slowly graduated to a Cool Whip container, then a family-sized takeout tub from a spaghetti joint. It’s now the largest tree on my parents’ property.” –Jordan Villanueva

When I was in college, the campus quad was lined with ancient Ginkgo trees that filled my morning walks to my fall classes with shimmering gold leaf. I remember those trees with such fondness that the first tree I planted when I moved to Wisconsin was a Ginkgo tree.

There’s something about trees…we wax poetic and become nostalgic; we include them in our literature and art as important symbols and teachers of life lessons. Continue reading “There’s Something About Trees: Arbor Day 2019”

Cardboard Couture: From Conception to Runway Debut

The five-member team at the Read(y) To Wear event.

What do fashion, paperboard product packaging and literacy have in common? Answer: The Read(y) to Wear submission from a team of Promega employees for an event put on by the Madison Reading Project. With a challenge that stated teams need to make a garment mostly of paper, the resulting creations would be displayed on a runway as part of a charitable evening for an organization dedicated to bringing books to children.

Volunteering to be part of what became a five-person team to create a wearable garment from paper was the easy part. Our first few meetings we were experimenting with ideas and techniques using paper we could access on campus: Print catalogs, discarded books and our prototype product kit boxes. It was the kit boxes with the David Goodsell imagery that inspired our ideas to create a suit of armor. The paperboard boxes protect the products we ship to customers like a suit of armor protects warriors in battle. Continue reading “Cardboard Couture: From Conception to Runway Debut”

Science Visitors Only: Watching Life Grow on a New Island

We spend a lot of time looking at history and imagining—”what was it like when…?” As a biologist, I find myself most drawn to stories about the evolution of life. Why does this plant have purplish leaves? How did this species end up in a symbiotic relationship with this other species? How did this animal get to this tiny island 20 miles off the Southern coast of Iceland?

The volcanic island of Surtsey erupting in 1963.
The newly formed island of Surtsey erupting in 1963.

That last one was too specific to be rhetorical, wasn’t it? The volcanic island of Surtsey broke the ocean surface on November 14, 1963, and continued to erupt until June 5, 1967, reaching its maximum size of 2.7 km2 (about the size of Central Park in New York City). At this size, it was large enough to be a good site for biocolonization. Only a few scientists are allowed to visit the island, ensuring that colonization of the island can occur without human interference. Continue reading “Science Visitors Only: Watching Life Grow on a New Island”

The Secret Fluorescent Life of Flying Squirrels

flying squirrel specimen
A flying squirrel museum specimen under normal light versus ultraviolet light. Photo courtesy of AM Kohler, et al.

In May 2017, a surprising discovery was made in the woods of Bayfield County, Wisconsin, just about a 5-hour drive north of Promega headquarters. Jonathan Martin, Associate Professor of Forestry at Northland College, was exploring the forest with an ultraviolet (UV) light in search of fluorescent lichen or plant life. What he found instead was a bright pink glow coming from a most unexpected source—a flying squirrel.

Continue reading “The Secret Fluorescent Life of Flying Squirrels”

It’s Almost iGEM Season—Help Is On The Way!

The 2019 iGEM Competition is on the horizon and team registration opens this month. We’re excited to partner with the iGEM Foundation again this year and offer our support to the young scientists who participate. If you’re starting an iGEM project, there are going to be things you need along the way. We are pleased to share a number of different ways we can help your iGEM team from now until the Giant Jamboree.

Grant Sponsorship

Tell us about your iGEM project and your team could win a 2019 Promega iGEM Grant Sponsorship. Ten winning teams will each receive $2000 in free Promega products to use for their iGEM projects. Tell us about your project—What problem are you addressing? What is your proposed solution? What challenges does your team face? Last year’s winning teams selected from a wide range of reagents and supplies, including master mix, restriction enzymes, ligase, DNA purification kits, expression systems, DNA ladders and markers, buffers and agarose. Click here to apply! Continue reading “It’s Almost iGEM Season—Help Is On The Way!”

Extra extra: Read All About Tautonyms

If you’re active on #sciencetwitter, you may have seen a thread recently about tautonyms. “Tautonym” is a cool word for scientific names where the genus and species are the same word, For example, Vulpes vulpes is the scientific name for the red fox.

I have taken great delight in sharing these tautonyms with friends, colleagues, and random strangers on the bus. However, the problem that I keep having is that people want more details about something than the name. If you’ve had that problem, too, then this blog is for you. Continue reading “Extra extra: Read All About Tautonyms”

“We’re From NASA”: How Citizen Science Helped Find Ultima Thule

The science world is a-twitter with excitement lately, following the recent arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at 2014 MU69, dubbed “Ultima Thule” by popular vote. The name means “beyond the borders of the known world”, signifying Ultima Thule’s status as the most distant object ever visited by Earthly spacecraft. Ultima Thule is a dark reddish rock in the Kuiper belt, a contact binary formed by two smaller rocks coming together in what was presumably a gentle fashion.

Do you wanna build a snowman? Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Reaching this space snowman 6.5 billion kilometers away from Earth took brains, dedication, ingenuity and the help of an unnamed Argentinian man and his daughter.

To successfully intercept Ultima Thule, the New Horizons mission team needed to answer some questions, such as “What trajectory is Ultima Thule on?” and “Is there any space debris around Ultima Thule that will destroy our spacecraft?” Being so small (~30km diameter at its widest point), observing Ultima Thule directly from this far away would be too difficult, so the team relied on data gathered during stellar occultations, i.e., when Ultima Thule passed in front of a star.

One of these occultations occurred on July 17, 2017, in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The team had already struck out twice in trying to observe Ultima Thule passing over a star: once in South Africa, and again using the airborne telescope SOFIA over the Pacific Ocean, so tension was already running high.

On this particular night, it happened to be very windy where the observation team was, which is bad news when you’re trying to hold steady focus on a tiny object that’s really far away. The team found themselves needing help to shield the telescopes they had brought with them from wind vibrations, and get the data from the star “without it jiggling around all over the place”, as planetary scientist Anne Verbiscer puts it.

Where does one find volunteers for an astronomical observation? Well, apparently even in Argentina NASA is known and loved, and help can be found just by walking into the community. “If you just started out with ‘We’re from NASA,’ people started coming out of the woodwork,” said Dr. Verbiscer. And that is how one Argentinian man and his daughter ended up spending their evening blocking the wind from a telescope using a truck, a tarp and some plywood, allowing the NASA folks to collect the data they needed to send New Horizons to Ultima Thule.

Want to learn more about the search for Ultima Thule? Check out the episode of NOVA that inspired this blog!